Steven Spielberg’s The Post is timely, but not in the way you might be thinking. Yes, the story is about an intrepid group of newspaper reporters going up against an authoritarian Nixon administration to publish government secrets, a true story with obvious parallels to our moment of Trump paranoia, Russian collusion, and press-undermining charges of “fake news.” But the element of the film that resonates most strongly turns out to be not its press-vs.-the-president setup but, rather unexpectedly, a strong feminist thread that runs through the film, and is perfectly timed not just for our Trump-era #resistance, but for this #metoo moment we find ourselves in.
Though the film boasts a stunning ensemble cast list that reads as though Spielberg watched a bunch of prestige cable and asked for the stars of all his favorite shows (David Cross, Bob Odenkirk, Carrie Coon…even the assistant DA from The Wire shows up), the script is in some respects a classic two-hander, centered primarily around just two characters. One is Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, the editor-in-chief of the Washington Post, who wants to publish findings from the top-secret, explosive Pentagon Papers after the New York Times, which broke the story, is temporarily muzzled by the Nixon administration. The other is Meryl Streep as Katherine Graham, the Post’s publisher, who must decide whether to authorize the story.
Hanks is capable as Bradlee, playing the newspaper man as the kind of gruff, competitive, and doggedly ethical newspaper man you imagine dominating the newsrooms of yesteryear. His performance is perhaps a little broad, veering sometimes into caricature (the performance could also work for the Daily Planet’s Perry White in a Superman movie), and Hanks suffers a bit by comparison with Jason Robards as the same character in All the President’s Men.
If it’s anyone who carries the film, it’s Streep, as a woman running a business dominated by men, and showing every ounce of that stress on her face. Graham’s father was publisher before her, but when he retired he passed the business to her husband instead of her; the role of publisher didn’t come to Katherine until her husband died. In the film, Streep’s scenes of Graham performing her duties as publisher play like a catalogue of the ways women are undermined in the workplace: she is interrupted in meetings with her all-male board, subtly undermined by Bradlee, who technically works for her, and belittled and manipulated by every one of her male colleagues on the way to her ultimate decision of whether or not to publish.
The excellent script, written by Liz Hannah, takes pains to show us that it’s Graham who has more at risk in publishing the Pentagon Papers than Bradlee, who would be hailed as a press hero even if the fallout from the story sunk the paper. Graham, however, has a more complex thicket of professional, social, and legal obligations to navigate—starting with her friendship to Robert McNamara, who is implicated in the Papers; the financial performance of the Post, which hovers near bankruptcy; an initial public stock offering; and her commitment to the freedom of the press, which is no less strong than Bradlee’s.Graham’s storyline and predicament is the most compelling thing about The Post; everything else is good but doesn’t land quite as convincingly. The Post staff’s frantic search for leads on the Papers is presented entertainingly, and the momentum never flags—but this is not, unfortunately, the riveting journalistic thriller that some of the film’s breathless marketing is promising you. Preventing it from achieving full thriller status is the film’s lightness of tone, presenting the whole thing as some fun, jaunty adventure. Potentially suspenseful moments are artificially leavened with comic relief, as when Bob Odenkirk’s reporter drops all his change as he’s on a payphone with a whistleblower, or when a shlubby underling is given a box full of classified documents but is too terrified of Bradlee to march them right into his office.
Completely lacking is the air of paranoia and dread that pervaded the conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s, like The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, or most notably All the President’s Men, for which The Post serves as a kind of prequel. Spielberg has managed this kind of dark tone before, most notably in his downbeat 2000s films like A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, War of the Worlds, and Munich. That he chose to go with a lighter tone here must be a deliberate choice—but I think it’s the wrong one. The Trump era seems just as paranoid and fearful as the 70s, or the Bush years, for that matter. A more careful evocation of the pervasive dread of living under a president with authoritarian tendencies could’ve sat well with the feminist strains of the Graham storyline, highlighting the difficulty of her predicament.
But no matter. The Post is a fine film, and with Spielberg’s Lincoln and Bridge of Spies it constitutes a sort of trilogy in which the director and his collaborators defend the norms and institutions of deliberative democracy: negotiation, compromise, separation of powers, human rights, and now the press. It’s an inspiring piece of work that’ll get you excited about the role of the news media in a free society, imbuing even activities as mundane as proofreading with world-historical import (seriously). Apparently the staff of the Washington Post, which has broken many of the key stories of the Trump era so far, all went to see the film together. I hope they were inspired and encouraged by it.–Andrew DeYoung